The Hornets bench erupts after the final buzzer in their 2-0 win over Hill-Murray in the Class AA championship.

Hornets get two third-period goals to win fifth title

Hill-Murray scored three goals in the first period in their opening two games of the tournament. That early success led to a pair of wins and pitted them in the championship game against rival Edina. But the Pioneers couldn’t penetrate the Edina defense or goalie Reese McConnell Saturday in the title game. On the other end, Edina’s Lorelai Nelson had two highlight-reel plays to lead the Hornets to a 2-0 win and their fifth Class AA championship in school history.

“We got three in the first against Roseau and three in the first against Andover,” said Hill-Murray Head Coach John Pohl. “We’re the type of team if we get the first goal the game comes better for us. We just couldn’t get that first one tonight. If we get one early it’s an entirely different game.”

Grace Zhan finishes her senior season with a 1.39 GAA and .946 Sv%.

Grace Zhan, who was a big reason for the Pioneers’ appearance in the title game, was stellar again in the opening frame. Zhan’s 10 saves in the first period were far from easy, turning away a couple of Hornets breakaways and point-blank attempts. The biggest save was with under three minutes left when Edina peppered four straight shots on net, but Zhan was up to the task.

The second period was more of the same.  Zhan and McConnell put on a clinic in the nets keeping the game scoreless through two periods.

Zhan showcased her excellent vision with multiple glove saves, including a shot from the circle by Hannah Halverson with under a minute remaining. McConnell equaled her counterpart with five great saves, including a point-blank glove save of her own.

Hill-Murray’s best scoring chance in the period came when Emily Pohl worked her way right in the slot and got a great look on McConnell, who turned it away with a with a pad save.

Heading into the third period in a scoreless tilt, it appeared that a lucky bounce or a man advantage could be the key to turning the tides for either team.  It proved true when Hill-Murray took a slashing penalty midway through the third period. The Hornets took nearly the entire power play before Nelson found Horton wide open in the circle with a nifty no-look pass. Horton, who’s had as hot of a stick as any player in the state during the playoffs, fired it past Zhan in the top right corner for a 1-0 lead with 7:02 left in the game.

Patience and resiliency were keys for Edina, who kept adding pressure throughout the game and were waiting for a break.

“We ran into an incredibly talented goalie'” said Edina Head Coach Sami Cowger. “(It was important) not to get frustrated and continue to go to work.”

The Hornets remained in control for the next several minutes of the period and found themselves back in the Pioneers zone. With just 4:13 remaining Nelson found herself back with the puck and she made good use of it, dangling her way through the Pioneers’ defense and sniping it into the top right corner.

Lorelai Nelson had this attempt thwarted by Hill-Murray’s Grace Zhan, but Nelson regained the puck, sidestepped two Hill-Murray defenders, and rifled a shot past Zhan for a 2-0 lead.

“Whoever scored that goal has amazing skill,” said Zhan following the game. “She put it right into the right corner. It’s was a great shot.”

The Hornets held a late 2-0 lead and even after pulling Zhan, the Pioneers couldn’t muster much offense against a strong defensive Edina team. Edina just had a little more gas in their tank.

“I am incredibly proud of our girls,” said Pohl. “They battled incredibly hard. I think we just ran out of gas. We just didn’t seem to have that push.”

For Cowger, who now has five titles under her belt as head coach, this was especially sweet because the Hornets weren’t necessarily favorites heading into the season.

“This year has not been easy for us,” she said. “We had our ups and downs. There were a lot of learning moments.”

A team meeting on Dec. 5 that ran late into the night, coupled with Cowger bringing up three JV players to the varsity squad seemed to light a fire under a team that was searching for their identity.

“I could not be more proud of this team,” Cowger said. “They showed up and bought in at the right time.”

The team that finished the season was much different than the team that started it.

“For the last two weeks they just wanted it more,” she said.

The Hornets end their championship season with a record of 23-6-1. The Pioneers end their great season with a 26-3-1 record.

“It was a good hockey game,” said Hill-Murray’s Pohl.  “Props to Edina. They’re a great team. They deserved to win.”

Photo Gallery: